The Royal Grudge Bridge

This December will mark seventy years since the Royal Gorge Bridge was strung 1,053 feet above the Arkansas River where it cuts through a sheer canyon a dozen miles outside of Canon City. The project was the brainchild of Lon Piper, a San Antonio toll-bridge promoter who conceived the undertaking not as a feat of conveyance, but of salesmanship and tourism. Unlike spectacular transportation engineering achievements, such as Trail Ridge Road, which is cut high into the side of a mountain, the Royal Gorge Bridge goes nowhere. Once you're on the other side, there is nothing to do but turn around.

The dedication of the bridge in 1929 was nonetheless a cause for pomp and festivity. On the morning of December 8, dignitaries from Denver and across the state boarded a special train on the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad. It left Denver at eight in the morning and arrived at the Royal Gorge at 12:45 p.m. There passengers enjoyed a long roster of entertainment. "Miss Opal Joyce, the most beautiful young woman in Fremont County, who is Miss Fremont County, pronounced the bridge open," the Denver Post reported. The project, which had been financed entirely by Piper, cost $350,000--$100,000 over budget--and had taken six months to complete.

Because the bridge was always intended as a destination rather than a thoroughfare, its purpose has always been profit. Yet the 1,260-foot long span was also seen as an extraordinary example of man's ingenuity in overcoming, and even enhancing, the obstacles of nature. "The Royal Gorge bridge does not profane nor vandalize this grandeur and sublimity of the great chasm it spans," the Canon City Record reported the day after the dedication, "but adds to its beauty and makes available to the vision the mighty depths otherwise hidden to the human eyes." People flocked to see it.

Other engineering marvels were soon added. In June 1931 a funicular train that slid down Telephone Gulch at a 45-degree angle was installed just west of the bridge. (Two months later, a Pueblo man became the first to commit suicide there.) In 1937 outdoor lights were aimed at the bridge. "They completely illuminate the entire gorge from tip to bottom and set off the bridge itself in an effective manner," the Pueblo Chieftain raved. "It is expected that the installation will attract hundreds of additional tourists to the bridge."

Indeed, despite the rugged natural grandeur of the Royal Gorge, man-made spectacles and promotions have been part and parcel of the site ever since it opened for business. When a lodge was added to the canyon's rim in the summer of 1950, opening-day visitors were "smartly served by pretty girls in swirly, revealing skirts," according to an account of the event. Diners who managed to pull their eyes away from the fetching servers "looked enviously at a yet uncompleted miniature railway which will take craning, gasping visitors near the edge of the gash in the earth." Over the years, concerts, giant conga lines and bungee-jumpers have all drawn visitors to the gorge.

From the vantage point of Canon City, the prison town of 14,000 that owns the land surrounding the bridge and all of its tourist accoutrements, and the Texas-based corporation that has run the attraction since its opening, the busy site has worked out just fine. Year after year, the private Royal Gorge Bridge Company of Dallas earns a tidy profit for itself. And each year, the company has issued a rent check to Canon City based on the tourist revenue it's received in the previous year.

Lately, that check has been worth more than $1 million, a sum that has made Canon City's property taxes the lowest in the entire state. Steve Rabe, the city's administrator, says that Canon City is just completing the annexation of a residential neighborhood. When the new $250,000 homes are completed, their owners will pay just under $75 a year in property taxes. A similarly priced home in Denver is taxed about $2,000 annually.

Such an arrangement ought to be appreciated by people like William Fehr, a 42-year-old businessman who recently purchased a 700-acre ranch outside the city, at the mouth of the Royal Gorge itself. But it isn't. Instead, the whole thing tends to irritate him. "They have such a gorgeous resource here that, in spite of themselves, they get 500,000 visitors a year," he gripes.

In fact, he adds, it just might be the case that he himself, a mere fourth-generation Pennsylvania gravel and rock miner, could do a better job managing the entire show--the bridge, the funicular, the tram installed in 1969, the food booths, the miniature railroad, the theater. It'd probably even be a kick. "Don't you think this would be fun to run?" he asks on a recent day while standing at the lip of the gorge, his ponytail whipping in a strong wind, the bridge stretching nearly a quarter-mile over the abyss in front of him. "It'd be totally cool."

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer